ETOSHA NATIONAL PARK, Namibia — Just after sunrise, I saw a traffic jam ahead and instinctively pumped the brakes until my car came to a stop.
This must be rush hour, I thought to myself.
Dozens of zebras trotted across the road, some stopping to look through the car window. I watched a sea of striped rumps waltz toward the watering hole. Down the road, I paused again for an approaching herd of springbok.
I would get stuck in several traffic jams over my four days in Etosha National Park, each one more exotic than the next. There was one thing noticeably absent from these gridlocks, however: other people.
This was my first time in Africa. Previously, I envisioned going on safari in an open-air jeep crowded with strangers, as a guide pointed out creatures I could only see through binoculars. I never imagined I could just do it on my own.
Two days earlier, I had found myself in a parking lot in Windhoek, staring at the underside of a white Ford Ranger. David Cartwright, the owner of ATI Holidays, was demonstrating the finer points of changing a tire on Etosha’s roads.
“The first thing you need to do is look out for lions,” Cartwright mentioned casually. I thought this was a joke until later in the week when I drove by a family of German tourists frantically trying to change a tire in front of two approaching elephants.
At first, the idea of motoring through the African wild independently seemed daunting. Then I found ATI Holidays, a Namibian travel company that creates individualized “self-drive” vacations. They mapped out a driving route based on my interests and booked my meals and accommodations, which might otherwise be tough in a country that is largely off the grid. Each rental car is fully insured and comes with a cellphone for emergency support. The staff will even recommend books to read (to help identify animals) and local guides in each area. After that, it’s just you and the open road.
Most of the 260-mile journey to Etosha National Park was on a well-paved, two-lane highway. Occasionally, however, the road would break off into chunks, with giant termite mounds poking up from far below the earth. I passed sign after sign alerting me to various animal crossings: warthog, elephant, rhino, springbok, and the occasional cow. Baboons gathered on top of rocks to watch me drive by. Families of warthogs trotted alongside the road before diving into the bush. A confused ostrich zigzagged frantically down the highway, feathers flying, before taking a sharp left onto a small dirt road. The whole time, I saw only eight other vehicles and a handful of people walking down the road.
I arrived in Etosha National Park with only two daylight hours to spare. I quickly registered my car with the park rangers and then headed down a dusty road in search of animals. I consulted my park map at an unmarked intersection. There are no wrong turns in this 8,598-square-mile wildlife preserve, but it’s much easier to spot wildlife at dawn and dusk, when they congregate around watering holes.
Namibia was the first African country to include environmental protection in its constitution once it was granted independence in 1990. Currently, 40 percent of Namibia is conservation land. As a result, Namibia’s animal populations are booming in comparison with neighboring countries, where poaching and human population growth threaten wildlife. Involving local communities in ecotourism initiatives has proven successful in Namibia, where poaching is generally equated with stealing money directly from the community. (Namibia, incidentally, has one of the lowest crime rates in sub-Saharan Africa.)
The critically endangered black rhino might be the best example of this. There are roughly 5,000 black rhinos left in the world, the majority of which live in Namibia. I was repeatedly told that spotting one was highly unlikely, since they are shy and solitary creatures.
A journey through Etosha (and, to a greater extent, Namibia) is an exercise in living in the moment. If you drove to the same spot day after day, you would see something different each time. Since animals wander, hunt, and hide, crossing paths with them is mostly just by chance. The good news is, the numbers are in your favor: There are more animals than people in Namibia, and far more creatures than tourists in Etosha, which is the same size as Masai Mara in Kenya but sees roughly half the number of visitors per year.
It took a while for my eyes to adjust to the nuances of spotting wild animals hiding in plain sight. Every creature blends into the environment seamlessly — even the 15-foot-tall giraffe. While I was reading my map, I noticed some movement outside. There, 20 feet to my left was a rare black rhino, quietly picking leaves off a low-lying tree branch.
I spent the next few days waking up at sunrise and driving from my lodge to Etosha’s many watering holes, where I encountered all kinds of wildlife drawn to the impressive Etosha Pan. This mineral-rich, dried lake bed hasn’t changed much in the 12 million years since the Kunene River changed its course. Etosha’s roads circle the giant pan, which stretches roughly 80 miles by 30 miles, with various watering holes along the way.
Each hole has its regulars, but all kinds of animals pop in and out throughout the day. I watched a jackal drink next to an elephant at one; a gemsbok cooled off in another while a herd of black-faced impala gathered nearby. A group of giant wildebeests lumbered toward another watering hole, while a giraffe bent awkwardly at the knees to get some water. At one point, a young male lion jumped out from behind a bush in a half-hearted attack on a springbok, who spotted him in time to run away.
There was excitement at every turn, and before I knew it, the sun was setting on my last day in Etosha. The Anderson Gate closes at sunset each day, which blocks off the main road closest to the lodge where I was staying. I reluctantly started back down the dirt road toward the exit when I came to a wall of grazing wildebeests and impalas. Upward of 50 creatures strolled nonchalantly down the road. I waited as the minutes ticked by, and when the path was clear I continued toward the gate. A startled baby giraffe leaped out in front of the car, looking as though it might topple over at any moment. Two adult giraffes followed, tumbling out of the trees in a top-heavy sprint. I arrived at the exit four minutes late according to the large clock above the visitor booth, just as a park ranger headed off to swing the gates closed. The uniformed man in the visitor booth tapped his watch after he passed a clipboard through my car window.
“You are late. You just made it,” he said, while I signed out of the park for the last time.
“I’m sorry,” I offered. “There was a lot of traffic.”